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Gardening for Life with GardenFit

Garden expert Madeline de Vries Hooper and fitness trainer Jeff Hughes are on a mission to help others take care of their most important garden tool—their bodies.
A walk-through of each garden helps Jeff understand how he can help his clients. Here, he and Madeline explore the grounds of Hortulus Farm with owner Renny Reynolds.

We are not teaching people how to garden,” says personal trainer Jeff Hughes. “We are starting a movement that integrates gardening and fitness to prevent aches and pains.” As part of that movement, Jeff and garden expert Madeline de Vries Hooper have launched a new PBS series, GardenFit, that debuted this spring.

It all started with Madeline’s own aches and pains. “I gardened every day for over 20 years and suffered with neck and shoulder pain for a long time,” she says. “A fellow gardener heard me complaining about it and suggested I consult Jeff.”

After her initial meeting, Madeline knew there was hope that she could continue her favorite activity more comfortably. “Jeff discovered that I was slumping into whatever task I was doing instead of maintaining correct open posture,” she says. “He taught me how to correct that, and within a month, I could feel a difference. After three months, my new habits were so ingrained that I was able to work in my garden without any pain at all. That continues to this day.”

Jeff and Madeline visit with gardener and antiquarian George Schoellkopf while touring his West Coast garden.

With a practice based in the foothills of Upstate New York, Jeff sees clients from every walk of life, including farmers who, as he explains, do much of their heavy lifting the wrong way. “We saw the need to introduce, and then solidify, different habits so that the body feels good all the time, no matter how strenuous or challenging the task,” he says. “After years of experience, I found that replacing hurtful practices with good ones is very rewarding.”

With Madeline’s newfound gardening habits, along with her background in PR, it seemed only natural that she and Jeff should partner and share the methods with even more people. The GardenFit television series involves 13 episodes that take viewers to unique gardens from New England to California, as well as many stops in between. And while the show features design concepts and color palettes that range from English to Japanese and vivacious to monochromatic, it also digs deeper into the people behind these amazing gardens and the physical issues they often face while working. The duo even added visits with gardeners at four farms that produce everything from Native American farm-to-table food to an African-focused bounty.

The general formula for the series involves an initial visit from Jeff and Madeline where they tour the garden, learn what inspires each gardener, and find out about their design approaches. The owners discuss the techniques they use and what physical problems they are experiencing with their work. After Jeff analyzes the issues, which can range from lifting heavy fruit baskets out of a low-slung vehicle to painstakingly clipping a topiary, he figures out exactly how the activity is affecting the individual and what he can do to address the aggravating task. “Once we agree on a better way, we set the stage for habit replacement with the new solution,” he says. “And then we return for a visit a month later to follow up.” As Madeline adds, “When your body issues are solved, your garden will look even more amazing. It is our hope that the show will benefit thousands of gardeners.”

In his East Coast garden, George listens to Jeff’s fitness advice.

5 Tips for Pain-Free Gardening

As the GardenFit movement gains traction, gardeners seeking solutions to problems are finding answers. Here, personal trainer Jeff Hughes shares advice to get you started.
  1. Don’t neglect the stretch. Limber up first before launching into chores.
  2. Change it up. Plan days around a rotation of tasks that alternate muscle groups.
  3. Buy the right equipment. Invest in ergonomic tools, such as a multifunctional kneeler seat with a tool-storage pouch. Use gloves with digging claws, latex-coated palms, and breathable nylon backs for reduced sweating.
  4. Extend the height. Consider raised beds to avoid back pain. Long periods of crouching and bending can cause hip flexor pain, as well as spine pressure.
  5. Ease up on your knees. Use your hip area (not your knees) as a focal power point when pulling weeds. Spread your feet wider than your hips, and when bending, hinge your hips backward and tilt your body forward. Knee aches can also result from weakness in the calves, which can be remedied with five or ten calf-raise exercises per day.

By Marion Laffey Fox

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Find out when GardenFit airs on your local PBS station.

Cultivating Community at Sparta Gardens:  At a 10-acre “urban farm in a country town,” Suzy and Robert Currey are doing more than growing delicious organic produce.

Finding Sanctuary: From its colorful past to its mission-based present, the historical house and gardens of Filoli strive to make the future one of unity and peace.

Restoring Hortulus: In 2008, Flower visited the late garden writer Jack Staub and legendary event and floral designer Renny Reynolds to tour the reclaimed gardens of their historic Bucks County, Pennsylvania, farm Hortulus.